Sports Out West

Branden Oliver, Chargers’ running backs impress in first game

K.C. Alfred / UT San Diego

SAN DIEGO — If there was merely one roadblock the San Diego Chargers would absolutely need to overcome in 2014, it’s finishing drives; despite a 27-7 victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday, it was still a concern. 

Forget about beating Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, the weak secondary and any possible injuries. If they can’t score, they can’t win.

And as the Chargers’ offense lined up on the three-yard line against the Cowboys after storming down the field swiftly and easily, the drive ended just as so many others have.

They scored zero points. 

Running back Ryan Mathews fumbled into the end zone on first-and-goal. It was recovered by Justin Durant, resulting in a touchback for the Cowboys.

Mathews is unfortunately no stranger to fumbles. His woes in that area date back to his rookie season in 2010. 

Over his four-year career, he’s fumbled 14 times in 849 carries, which averages to one fumble per every 60 carries (in comparison, LaDainian Tomlinson fumbled on average once every 105 carries). He did, however, cut down to just two in 2013 while playing in all 16 regular season games and two postseason matches.

The offense’s lack of ability to finish a drive with a score, specifically a touchdown, is a hefty concern to the team as they approach the end of training camp and the beginning of the regular season, which begins Sept. 8 against the Arizona Cardinals on Monday Night Football.

The Bolts have made it a habit of turning the ball over near the goal line in past seasons to cost them points, Mathews’ fumble on Thursday night being a perfect example. There has been questionable play-calling, including their three downs against Washington’s professional football team in November of last season, which has also caused the loss of many points.

Playing several high-scoring teams, the offense still has an immense amount of work to do on becoming able to finish drives, specifically inside the red zone. Field goals are damaging enough against teams like the Broncos and New England Patriots- whom they play back-to-back in the beginning of December. No points at all is unexceptable.

Asides from Mathews’ fumble, he did have an impressive four other carries during the starters’ only drive. He rushed for 18 yards, averaging 4.5 yards a carry. He powered up the middle for all but one of his carries, finding gaping holes and skipping out of numerous tackles.

The starting offensive line was to thank for the holes for Mathews and running back Danny Woodhead, who skirted up the middle twice for 10 yards, along with catching a short sling to the left from Philip Rivers for a striking 25-yard gain.

The line was also responsible for Rivers staying up-right. They pushed the Cowboys defensive line backwards constantly, something they have had trouble doing in the past. Rivers had a perfect pocket on nearly all of his drop-backs and was never even so much as touched.

The team’s running game continued to excel once the backups entered the game as well. Donald Brown carried the ball for 22 yards, rookie Marion Grice racked up 35 yards on 14 attempts, and Kerwynn Williams pounded in a touchdown.

But the running back who arguably turned the most heads on the warm San Diego night was rookie Branden Oliver.

The back rushed for 64 yards, including a 16-yard touchdown and a 27-yard gallop to the left in the second quarter. He averaged a whopping 9.1 yards per carry.

“It felt great,” Oliver said of his first NFL game. “I just want to thank God, first and foremost, for giving me the opportunity.”

If you didn’t know exactly who Oliver was, you may have thought you saw former running back Darren Sproles. 

The short 5-foot-8 back from the University of Buffalo has a close resemblance to the electric back. Right down to the No. 43 jersey.

His quick speed with the ability to cut sharply and squeeze under defensive lines is similar to Sproles’ style. 

Oliver, of course, has a long way to go to get the the level of football the now-Philadelphia Eagles’ running back plays at on a weekly basis- and simply make the team. But if he does make the cut, he could end up to be a potential key player for the Chargers as he works to build an NFL career.

“I just have to keep taking it one day at a time and just keep God first,” he said of his chances of making the 53-man roster. “I know I am in the right place. It’s not the end of it.”

The final score was 27-7, the Chargers coming out on top for their first game of 2014.

Photo Credit: K.C. Alfred / U-T San Diego

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Olivia Hops

Olivia Hops is a San Diego journalist, reporter, and producer who brings a fresh perceptive to the world of sports. Olivia has worked with U-T San Diego, U-T TV, Sports Illustrated, and other print and online publications. She is an absolute football junky, and her true passion lies with the NFL.